Four Downs

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Four Downs: Can the 49ers Capitalize Off of Patriots Recent Struggles?

The San Francisco 49ers look to continue their momentum heading into Foxborough for their Week 7 matchup against the New England Patriots. Cam Newton and Co. are coming off of a surprising loss to the Denver Broncos, dropping their season record to below .500 through five games for the first time since 2001. Meanwhile, San Francisco looks to find their footing a quarter into the season in a deep NFC West race.

49ers.com is joined by Anthony Garcia, associate producer and co-host of Triples Alley and Armchair Quarterback on NBC Sports Bay Area to highlight four pressing topics heading into the weekend's matchup.

You can catch Armchair QB every Monday at 12 noon PT on Facebook or 4 pm PT on NBC Sports Bay Area.

Without further ado, here are this week's Four Downs:

First Down: Top Storyline Heading into Week 7

@KeianaMartinTV – Which former top-ranked defense will prevail?

As we near the midway point of the season, there's a lot on the line for both franchises who sat at the top of their respective divisions in 2019. With that, Sunday begs the question; which team needs its defense to return to 2019 form the most in order to get their seasons back on track?

Just a year ago, the 49ers and Patriots were Top 2 in total defense and passing defense. While the 49ers have dealt with their share of injuries, namely Nick Bosa, Dee Ford and Richard Sherman, the Patriots are also without a number of starters, including a number of which they lost before the season as COVID opt outs.

Heading into Sunday, San Francisco is fifth in total and passing defense with New England not too far behind at ninth. The 49ers are 3-0 this season when holding opponents to under 24 points and New England's offense has only managed 11.0 points per game over their last two contests. Despite missing key players, the 49ers will need to continue their output to limit Cam Newton and Co. both through the air and on the ground (see third down).

@SportsAnthony – Will the real 49ers please stand up?

One of my least favorite clichés in all of sports is when someone says a team is "better/worse than their record." Which is kind of like saying you're richer than what's in your bank account. Or you're smarter than your IQ. A win-loss record is a tangible metric that records how good or not good a team is.

Through the first six games of the season, the 49ers are at .500. Three wins, three losses. But there's a stark contrast in how San Francisco has looked in those wins and losses. The 49ers were dominant against the New York teams at MetLife, and they looked like their old selves in a wire-to-wire win last Sunday night against the Rams. But there were also two disappointing home losses where they blew 4th quarter leads against Arizona and Philly, as well as a 26-point thrashing to Miami when they were nine-point favorites.

But after more than a third of the season gone, the question remains, which team are they? Are they Jekyll or Hyde? Tyler Durden or Ed Norton? In Week 6, Jimmy Garoppolo certainly didn't seem affected by his high ankle sprain and the defense looked brand new with the return of Emmanuel Moseley. San Francisco looked like world-beaters again. It's safe to assume that due to the injuries the 49ers aren't going 13-3 again. But maybe on certain weeks they can remind people they're still the reigning and defending NFC champions.

I am Jack's morbid curiosity.

Second Down: Position Group That Must Step Up

@KeianaMartinTV – Running Backs

San Francisco's offense is predicated on its run game. However, the 49ers will be without their primary workhorse with Raheem Mostert expected to miss time with an ankle injury. That means the 49ers will look to their three available backs on Sunday: Jerick McKinnon, Jeff Wilson Jr. and undrafted rookie JaMycal Hasty.

According to Next Gen Stats, Mostert has been San Francisco's most effective running back this season, averaging 5.9 yards per rush and 7.3 yards per touch, compared to 3.8 and 4.9 of the 49ers other ball carriers. The 49ers saw a complete drop off in production last week with Mostert out of the lineup. But even with Mostert missing two games this season to injury, the 49ers are still averaging 127.8 rushing yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry, ranked 11th-best in the league.

Meanwhile, New England's defense is holding running backs to an average of around 120 yards per game. Last week against the Broncos, the Patriots allowed running back Phillip Lindsay 101 yards on 23 carries (4.4 yards per carry).

Without Mostert in the lineup against New England's 16th-ranked rushing defense, the 49ers will need a spark from their supporting cast, along with the help of Brandon Aiyuk, and Deebo Samuel to help boost San Francisco's run game.

@SportsAnthony – Defensive Line

One week after giving up 43 points to a 1-win Dolphins team and facing a high-octane offense in the Rams, I don't think anyone would have been shocked if Los Angeles lit up the Levi's® Stadium scoreboard. It never happened. The San Francisco D gave up 16 points, only allowed LA's vaunted passing game to amass 198 yards and held Jared Goff to a 72.0 QB Rating. The play of the game might have been Jason Verrett's interception in the end zone. But as good as the 49ers defense played, there was one glaring dark lining to the silver cloud: the pass rush.

As poorly as Goff played, it wasn't because of the San Francisco D-line. The Marin native seemed like he had all day to throw and the numbers certainly back that up. Not only was Goff never sacked, he was only hit twice. As well as the secondary played on Sunday night, asking for a repeat performance against New England seems like a tall order. And it wasn't just the lack of a pass rush that was concerning. The Rams rushed for 113 yards and averaged 5.9 yards per carry. The Niners have only recorded 10 sacks this season, that's tied for 21st. We knew those numbers would go down with the loss of Bosa and Solomon Thomas, but the pass rush, which Kyle Shanahan himself has admitted was the strength of the team, has slowed to a pass crawl. They probably need to at least speed it up to a pass jaunt to beat the Patriots.

Third Down: Most Important Patriots Player to Contain

@KeianaMartinTV – Cam Newton

It's no secret that dual threat quarterbacks are the 49ers kryptonite, and the team will face yet another one in Week 7. Newton (56.3) trails only Lamar Jackson (57.7) and Kyler Murray (61.7) in rush yards per game among quarterbacks this season. Additionally, Newton and Murray both have registered at least five rushing touchdowns so far this year. Newton has led the Patriots in rush yards three times this season (Weeks 1, 2 and 6), and is coming off of an outing against the Denver Broncos where the quarterback led the Patriots ground game with 10 rushes for 76 yards (7.6 yards per carry) and a touchdown.

It is imperative for the 49ers to force Newton to play with his arm and not his legs. New England's passing offense has struggled this season, ranking 25th in yards per game (207.2) and 20th in yards per attempt (6.2). The Patriots have passed for over 175 yards just once this season. Meanwhile, San Francisco's defense is holding opposing offenses to under 213 yards a game, the fifth-best mark in the NFL.

San Francisco will need to learn from their mistakes from earlier in the season, especially with a looming matchup against Seattle and another meeting against Murray on the horizon. If the 49ers can contain Newton's mobility, the defense has a better opportunity to limit those explosive plays the quarterback is known for creating.

@SportsAnthony – Stephon Gilmore

It's not often you can 'contain' a defender but if there's anyone the 49ers need to worry about when they possess the ball it's Stephon Gilmore. The Pats cornerback is the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year (he was the first cornerback to win the award since Charles Woodson in 2009) and has been First-Team All-Pro each of the last two seasons.

He's so good that New England gave him a raise. It wasn't an extension, they didn't restructure his contract, they just gave him more money. Which I'm sure had everyone in Corporate America wishing their companies were more like the Patriots. Gilmore's not quite producing at the same level as last season when he led the NFL with six interceptions and two pick-sixes, but he's certainly still disruptive. Gilmore has a forced fumble and an interception through the first five games. The reigning DPOY is a gamechanger on the defensive side of the field and it'll certainly be interesting to see how Shanahan plans to neutralize him.

Fourth Down: Bold Prediction

@KeianaMartinTV – 49ers Notch Two Takeaways

The Patriots are on pace for the most giveaways in a season in the Belichick era (since 2000). Newton has thrown four interceptions to just two touchdowns over his four starts so far this season. The team ranks in the Top 5 in the league with 10 total giveaways on the season (seven interceptions, three fumbles), with seven coming in their last two games.

It's likely decisive throws and ball security are a point of emphasis for New England heading into Sunday, and optimistically, the 49ers can capitalize on New England's recent struggles.

@SportsAnthony – Hasty goes off

Because apparently there's a rule the 49ers must lose a starter every week, Mostert was injured Sunday night against LA and will be placed on Injured Reserve. Enter, JaMycal Hasty. The undrafted rookie from Baylor looked impressive in the second half against the Rams rushing for 37 yards on nine carries, an average of 4.1 yards a clip.

The 49ers offense looked stagnant without Mostert, only scoring three points after halftime, but of the rotation of running backs, Hasty seemed to be most successful. Word is that Hasty's seeing first-team reps in practice this week. We know how much of the Niners offense is predicated on their rushing attack, it sets up the play-action and motion that Shanahan loves to run. Mostert or not, San Francisco is going to run the ball. And the person who seems most primed to tote the rock is 'Tasty Hasty.'

Bold prediction? Sure. But more wishful thinking because I may or may not have picked up JaMycal in fantasy football this week. I'm 1-5, I need Hasty to go off more than the 49ers do.

Check out some of the best shots from Wednesday's practice as players prepare for Week 7.

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